During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations. His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen. The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind — a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt. As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are, Pygmalion is Howard’s picture — as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.
Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds. This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.
But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face. Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal. As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.
And speaking of its vintage: Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind. In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.
In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part. He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is — and solid actor and shining star.
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog. If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.
NEXT FRIDAY POST February 24
See you at the movies,